Imprisonment of Conscientious Objectors in Finland


Report for the Human Rights Committee in relation to Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

War Resisters' International, September 2004

Main Concerns

  • The right to conscientious objection is only recognised in peacetime. This means that at a time when it would be most needed -- at times of war -- conscientious objectors will not be able to act according to their conscience. As the right to conscientious objection is derived from Article 18 ICCPR, and Article 18 does not include national security as a reason for limiting the rights guaranteed in Article 18, the non-recognition of the right to conscientious objection in times of war is in breach of Article 18 ICCPR.
  • The imprisonment of total objectors (conscientious objectors to both military and substitute service) is an attempt to use the judicial system to break or change the conviction of a conscientious objector, and is therefore against the spirit of UN Commission on Human Rights Resolution 2002/45
  • The punitive length of the substitute service in Finland is contrary to the standards set out in numerous resolutions of the Commission on Human Rights, and is also contrary to the Decision on the merits of complaint 8/2000 to the European Committee of Social Rights in the case of Greece, which can be compared to the present situation in Finland.
  • In practice conscientious objectors is discriminated against in relation to their economic situation during their time of service, contrary to numerous resolutions of the Commission on Human Rights.

1 Introduction

This report focuses on the situation of conscientious objectors in Finland, especially the imprisonment of conscientious objectors who refuse to perform a substitute service that is punitive in length (total objectors).

Conscientious objectors from Finland have featured on almost all Prisoners for Peace Honour Rolls War Resisters' International published in recent years[1]. The names listed on these list only form the tip of the iceberg, as many conscientious objectors do not want their names to be made public. In addition to those who refuse to submit themselves to a punitive substitute service, there are many who accept substitute service, for fear of sanctions, among other reasons.

Aseistakieltäytyiäliitto, the Finnish Union of Conscientious Objectors, estimates that approximately 70 conscientious objectors every year refuse to perform substitute service, and are subsequently sent to prison, usually for 197 days. The latest case War Resisters' International is aware of is the case of Panu Väänänen, who was sentenced to 181 days unconditional imprisonment on 7 September 2004[2]. Since 1999, 45 conscientious objectors have been recognised as Prisoners for Conscience by Amnesty International.

With this report War Resisters' International highlights the violation of the human rights of conscientious objectors in a country that recognises the right to conscientious objection, and even has a very simple procedure for achieving conscientious objector status. The issue of total objection, and imprisonment of total objectors, is not limited to Finland, but is also an important issue in other countries that recognise the right to conscientious objection. The issue goes beyond the question of the punitive length of substitute service, and raises more general issue of compatibility between human rights and conscription, which cannot be covered in this report.

2 Legal situation

2.1 Conscription and military service

Conscription is enshrined in Article 127 of the 1999 Constitution, which states that "[e]very Finnish citizen is obligated to participate or assist in national defence, as provided by an Act."[3] and is further regulated by the 1998 Military Service Law (19/1998).

The length of military service is 180, 260 or 362 days, depending on the rank attained and the branch of the armed forces where service is performed. About 50% of conscripts perform a 180 days' military service.

All men between the ages of 18 and 30 are liable for military service. Reservist obligations apply up to the age of 50, and up to the age of 60 for officers. Reservist training lasts for a maximum of between 40 and 100 days, but in practice reservists are called up for training for a considerably shorter time[4].

Since 1985, Jehovah's Witnesses are legally exempt from service in peacetime, on providing prove of membership and participation in its activities[5].

Annual conscription takes place from September to November, the exact date depending on the district in question. Male citizens who have turned 18 during the year are expected to present themselves at call-up to establish whether they are fit for service. Finnish citizens residing abroad may register by proxy. All those eligible for military service receive a draft notice in spring, even if residing abroad, assuming their address is known. Even those who do not receive a draft notice when are expected to present themselves at call-up[6].

2.2 Conscientious objection

The right to conscientious objection has been legally recognised since 1931. Its present legal basis is the 1991 Non-military Service Act (1723/91)[7], also referred to as Civilian Service Act. According to this act, a "person liable for military service who avers that serious reasons of conscience founded on religious or ethical conviction prevent him from carrying out the service laid down in the Military Service Act ... will in peacetime be exempted from such service and assigned to do civilian service as provided for in this Act."

While both, religious and non-religious grounds for conscientious objection are recognised, it is important to note that the right to conscientious objection is only recognised in peacetime.

Application for conscientious objection status can be made at any time -- before, during, and after military service. The Non-military Service Act does not include provisions for conscientious objection for professional soldiers, as it only applies to conscripts.

The application procedure is simple. Applications can be made with a standard application form which is available from the Ministry of Defence. Since 1987, there is no personal interview. All completed applications are granted.

Draft evasion is punished by fine and a new call-up, which has led some into a repeating circle of fines and call-ups, if they refuse to comply[8].

2.3 Substitute service

The length of the substitute service to be performed by conscientious objectors is 395 days[9]. While the length of military service for about 50% of conscripts was reduced from 240 days to 180 days in 1998, the length of substitute service remained the same, which means that now substitute service lasts more than twice as long as military service, and has to be considered as punitive in length.

In the case of Greece the European Committee of Social Rights decided on 25 April 2001 that the extended service time of substitute service (at that time also more than twice the time of military service), "during which the persons concerned are denied the right to earn their living in an occupation freely entered upon, do not come within reasonable limits, compared to the duration of military service. It therefore considers that this additional duration, because of its excessive character, amounts to a disproportionate restriction on 'the right of the worker to earn his living in an occupation freely entered upon' and is contrary to Article 1 para.2 of the Charter"[10]. The same should apply in the situation of Finland.

Substitute service is administered by the Ministry of Labour. It can be performed with both government institutions and non-governmental (non-profit) organisations. Most COs perform their substitute service in social and healthcare institutions, public offices, schools, universities, libraries and cultural institutions.

There is a lack of places where substitute service can be performed. The Civilian Service Act stipulates that the Ministry of Labour is responsible for the assignment of workplaces, but in practice most COs find a place themselves. If a CO does not manage to find a workplace in time, he is obliged to serve in a special training centre in Lapinjärvi.[11]

After completing substitute service, COs have no reservist duties during peacetime. The legal position of COs in wartime is not quite clear. The Civilian Service Act stipulates that COs are assigned to substitute service during peacetime, but it does not specify their position during warime. According to the Military Service Law, CO's must join defence during wartime, but the law does not specify what kind of service they are supposed to do.

Section 20 of the Non-military Service Act lists the different financial benefits those serving substitute service are entitled to. These are free accommodation, food, clothing, health care, a daily allowance, and free travel; they are all laid down in detail by a decree.

Free accommodation is the benefit that causes the most trouble in the system. The high cost of living in Finland makes it the most costly part of employing a conscientious objector, and therefore the one that is the most difficult for service locations to provide. Many service locations illegally require that the conscientious objector can arrange for his own accommodation. Actually only a third of the available service locations do provide accommodation for their servicemen[12].

In the present situation a system that should be supervised by the government through the Ministry of Labour is seriously in contradiction with the law. Conscientious objectors who encounter this problem during their service, and those working for amendments, are powerless in face of the situation, as long as the legal basis remains the way it is now. The situation is also in breech of Commission on Human Rights resolution 1998/77, which reiterates that States must not -- in their law and practice -- discriminate against conscientious objectors in relation to their terms of conditions of service, or any economic, social, cultural, civil or political rights[13].

3 Imprisonment of conscientious objectors

Since the length of substitute service has become twice as long as military service in 1998 (due to the reduced length of military service), the number of total objectors has increased significantly. According to estimates by Aseistakieltäytyiäliitto, approximately 70 conscientious objectors declare themselves total objectors annually.

Total objectors are sentenced according to two different laws, depending on whether they first applied for legal recognition as conscientious objector or not.

Total objectors who are recognised as conscientious objectors and subsequently refuse to perform substitute service are sentenced according to Article 26 of the Non-military Service Act, which states: "If a person liable for civilian service fails to report for service, ceases to serve or announces in writing that he refuses to perform civilian service, he shall be sentenced to imprisonment for a civilian service offence for a period corresponding to half of his remaining service time. The prison sentence is in full days."

Total objectors who did not apply for conscientious objector status will be sentenced according to Article 39 Military Service Act.

Table: Sentencing of total objectors, 1992-2002[14]

(Charge: Civilian Servlce Crime [or Alternatlve Servlce Crime])
District court statistics 1992-2002
Total casesAverage













Asevelvollisuudesta kieltaytyminen
(Charge: Refusing military service)
District Court sentences 1994-2002
Total casesAverage












The official statistics show an increase from a total of 34 cases in 1998 to 80 cases in 2002. This is in line with the estimates of Aseistakieltäytyiäliitto.

The imprisonment of conscientious objectors in Finland has to be seen as an attempt to use the judicial system to force the conscientious objectors to change their conviction -- or to prevent other conscientious objectors from following their conviction[15]. Although the right to conscientious objection exists in Finland in principle, the practice of a substitute service more than twice as long as military service limits this right considerably, and has to be seen as punitive in length. This means that conscientious objectors can only choose between punishment in form of a criminal conviction and imprisonment (in case they refuse to perform a punitive substitute service), or submitting themselves to a punitive substitute service.

3.1 The Hermaja case [16]

The case of Jussi Hermaja is of special interest. He applied for asylum in Belgium, the only country within the European Union that accepts asylum applications from other EU member states. His application was rejected by both the Foreigners department and the Commisariat for Refugees. In 2004, The Raad van State rejected Hermaja's appeal. If Hermaja returns to Finland, he would be sentenced to imprisonment, but so far the Finnish state has not called for Hermaja's extradition. Hermaja has also made an appeal against the rejection of his asylum request with the European Court of Human Rights. His case is still pending.[17]

4 Conclusions

Although Finland recognises the right to conscientious objection in its 1999 constitution and implements it with the Non-military service Act, War Resisters' International is concerned about serious violations of human rights as part of the substitute service system, and the imprisonment of more than 70 conscientious objectors annually. While some aspects of the implementation of the right to conscientious objection -- especially the straightforward application procedure -- are good examples of a practical implementation of the right to conscientious objection, these are overshadowed by the seriousness of the human rights violations, especially the regular imprisonment of conscientious objectors.

War Resisters' International is therefore working with Aseistakieltäytyiäliitto to improve the situation of conscientious objectors in Finland, and focusses its Prisoners for Peace Day 2004 campaign on the fate of Finnish conscientious objectors.


1 See for Prisoners for Peace 2003, for 2002, for 2001, to give some examples.
2 FINLAND: Total objector P. V. sentenced to 181 days in prison 14 September 2004
3 See
4 Kaj Raninen: Email 23 September 2004, comments on 1st draft.
5 Act on the Release of Jehovah's Witnesses from Military Obligations in Certain Cases (645/1985)
6 Finnish Embassy in Australia: Military Service.
7 . Amendments include 456/1992, 1264/1992, 1271/1993, 1222/1998, 439/2000, 1248/2000, 745/2002. The amended version is available at
8 Email from Kaj Raninen (2003), Re: WRI draft section on Finland for OSCE report, 7 July 2003.
9 Article 3, Non-military Service Act 1991
10 European Committee of Social Rights, Decision on the merits, complaint 8/2000,
11 (Finnish Union of Conscientious Objectors)
12 Kekkonen, Jukka. Siviilipalveluksen kehittäminen. Helsinki: Ministry of Labour, 1999.
13 Commission on Human Rights resolution 1998/77
14 Oikeustilastollinen vuosikirja 1994, SVT, Oikeus 1995:14, Oikeustilastollinen vuosikirja 1995, SVT, Oikeus 1996:13, Oikeustilastollinen vuosikirja 1996, SVT, Oikeus 1997:6, Oikeustilastollinen vuosikirja 1997, SVT, Oikeus 1998:4, Oikeustilastollinen vuosikirja 1998, SVT, Oikeus 1999:3, Oikeustilastollinen vuosikirja 1999, SVT, Oikeus 1999:18, Oikeustilastollinen vuosikirja 2000, SVT, Oikeus 2001:16, Oikeustilastollinen vuosikirja 2001, SVT, Oikeus 2002:1, Oikeustilastollinen vuosikirja 2002, SVT, Oikeus 2002:18
15 In Commission on Human Rights resolution 2002/45 the Commission took note of recommendation No. 2 of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, aimed at preventing the judicial system of States from being used to force conscientious objectors to change their convictions. Although in Finland there is no repeated imprisonment, the purpose of the imprisonment of CO is still the same.
16 This section is taken from a draft report by Marc Stolwijk, updates to Refusing to bear arms, 2004
17 For regular updates on the case of Hermaja: The current controversy about the punitive length of substitute service is actually not new for Finland. Between 1987 and 1991, substitute service also lasted twice as long as military service, which also resulted in an increasing number of total objectors.


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